ELLEN VAN NEERVEN Heat and Light. Reviewed by Linda Funnell
This award-winning young writer delivers a debut collection of stories that ranges widely across themes of longing, identity, destiny and desire.
Heat and Light is divided into three parts: ‘Heat’, ‘Water’ and ‘Light’. Each part has a distinct character, but a restless yearning underlies all three.
‘Heat’ is a sequence of five linked stories that unspool the secrets of the Kerrigan family. It is a strong, sinewy sequence, almost a novella, with a definite gothic undertone of carelessness and retribution. It opens with 20-something Amy discovering that the woman she has known as her grandmother is in fact her grandmother’s sister. Her real grandmother is Pearl, a beautiful, mysterious woman with an affinity for the wind. When Pearl is just a teenager, a wild storm blows up in the town:
… it was the wind, cyclonic, that kept anyone with common sense inside. Not Pearl … She was standing on the jetty star-posed and everyone saw her. She seemed to fight with the wind for a moment, her torso wrenched back and her chin to the sky, but then we saw her fall into the grey water.
A man drowns trying to save her, but, improbably, Pearl survives, and emerges a day later ‘with her hair streaked white’. She is sensual, desirable, her skin like ‘burnt butter’, and she has many lovers, male and female. But there is something more than a classic femme fatale going on here. The wind follows her, and during another, later, storm, she is lifted into the air:
… she went into the electricity wires and they curled into each other like lovers as she was jolted. Her brother moved to her lifeless body and she touched him, and he took her place.
Her brother’s death is shocking in its abruptness. The town ostracises Pearl, and her family don’t see her again until she turns up, heavily pregnant, at her sister’s house, where she gives birth to her son, Charlie.
Told by different voices and from different points of view – Amy, her cousin Colin, Marie, and others — the connections between the five stories that comprise ‘Heat’ aren’t always immediately obvious, which allows each character to tell their story before revealing their place in the whole. How Pearl’s legacy plays out isn’t always entirely clear, but for her granddaughter, Amy:
So much is in what we make of things … But I think [Pearl] was a fighter. I think there is a lot of struggle in our family and she has passed on that strength. I don’t know yet if she’s alive or dead, at peace or not, but I know she deserves to be a part of our family’s history.
There are struggles in Amy’s generation, too. In the story ‘Soil’, we see her in her role running the ATSI Youth Development Centre. Her father calls to pressure her to allow her estranged cousin, Colin, to receive an Indigenous housing grant. Amy is sceptical; Colin moved away 20 years ago and ‘doesn’t identify’ with his Indigenous heritage.
As president she had made strict rules about who she accepted, it wasn’t just anyone. They must know who they are and they must be living as who they are. With those whose applications she rejected, she didn’t use the terms that some of the others did, ‘coconut’ and so forth. She understood it was easy for some of their mob to be white and project a whiteness. She imagined it was easy for them to live out their lives this way. And one day it might click, when they needed a job, a house, a surgery. Too easy. I’ll be black now.
In time we learn why Colin has left his country, but within the span of this brief story van Neerven encapsulates the slipperiness of identity, bureaucracy and family expectation.
The second part, ‘Water’, is a single long story, set in a dystopian near-future. A new species – plantpeople – has been discovered inconveniently close to a major development project involving a string of islands off the Queensland coast. A young Indigenous woman, Kaden, takes a job as a liaison officer, making daily trips to different islands to deliver ‘formula’ to the plantpeople. The analogy of Australia’s white/black history is obvious, as is the ecological message, but there is also the story of Kaden’s yearning for her own family, which she seeks to reconnect with on the mainland, and the intertwining of these strands is skilfully done. We are allowed a moving picture of reconciliation, balanced with an uncertain larger resolution.
The third part, ‘Light’, brings us back into contemporary Australian life. These ten stories stand alone, and while some are stronger than others, as in the first two parts they are marked by beautifully observed moments and themes of family, identity and longing. Here a young woman discovers her sexuality; a man takes his wife and child out of the city to find a better life and discovers monstrous dangers; a neglected child sets out on a quixotic journey towards a rusting ferris wheel in the outback; a sister seeks connection with her brother, knowing that his mental illness makes this not just difficult but dangerous.
In ‘S & J’, Esther reflects on her relationship with Jaye:
When we met I was a shy teen and it felt good to be going places. Doing things. She was darker than me and all the other Murris I knew, like a walking projection of what a blackfella was supposed to be like. She knew language, knew them old stories. Had to say ‘deadly’ every second sentence. Postcard blackfella.
This is not ‘postcard blackfella’ fiction, but Indigenous experience informs every page. Ellen van Neerven won the 2013 David Unaipon Award for an unpublished manuscript by an Indigenous writer, and establishes herself here as a writer of imagination and intelligence, not afraid to mix fantastic visions with the heat of desire or the need to belong. This is a compelling and revelatory collection.
Ellen van Neerven Heat and Light UQP 2014 232pp $22.95
To see if it is available from Newtown Library, click here.